By Marguerite Jill Dye
I was ecstatic at first, as I floated through the Clark Art Institute’s downstairs galleries filled with more than 80 magnificent works by “Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900.” The stunning exhibit in Williamstown, Massachusetts was organized by the American Federation of Arts. “Her Paris” will remain through Sept. 3, but this is its final venue (since the Denver and Louisville, art museums). I gasped when I saw some of my favorite paintings by American Mary Cassatt and France’s Berthe Morisot, “old friends” who put me in a soulful mood, remembering my student years in Paris when I frequented the far end of the Jardin des Tuileries. There, the little sister museums stood: l’Orangerie with Monet’s Water Lilies, and the Jeu de Paume, home to my favorite Impressionists, now mostly in the Musee d’Orsay, a train station in my day.
I recognized Rosa Bonheur’s (French) majestic work from Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art. My reverie was soon interrupted when my husband Duane exclaimed, “Rosa Bonheur’s wearing the red rosette of the French Legion of Honor in Anna Elizabeth Klumpke’s portrait of her!” We learned she was the first woman to receive France’s greatest honor. Her enormous landscapes with animals were acclaimed in France and the U.S., but her recognition was quite unique.
I spotted other paintings by Cassatt, Morisot, and Bonheur that I didn’t know, then was astonished to discover that of the 37 women artists, I’d never heard of 34. How could that be? I’m a woman, an artist, I majored in French, studied art, and lived in Paris. What gives? I was thrilled to see their phenomenal work, but overcome by sadness. Why?
I remembered my art history professor, Mr. Matsoukis, who suggested entering the artist’s world through their paintings’ portal. What I could see was their silent revolution against society’s repressive norms, and their struggles to realize their creative potential in a man’s world, even in Paris, the epicenter of art. Lined, weary faces, blank staring gazes, precocious children, exhausted women. Limited roles and subject matter (for the most part) kept women in their place—mostly at home. Hailing from 13 countries, they courageously sought refuge in Paris to study art and pursue their careers. Most remained seldom acclaimed, and numerous obstacles forced some to abandon their art after several years.
Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau’s paintings were extraordinary, but her only recognition was as the best imitator of her husband, William Adolph Bouguereau, renowned painter and teacher. She finally accepted her fate after pursuing her own vision, which was equally outstanding. Only his works are noted in art history. Early German Expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker created over 700 paintings and other works before dying after childbirth. Her museum in Bremen was the first ever built for a woman. Another talented painter, tired of rejections, put down the brush and took up the pen to become an art critic. A few of the artists were represented by Paris art dealer Durand-Ruel, and fortunately, several art collectors, including the Clarks, purchased paintings and kept them safe. Thanks to our American collectors, we’ve viewed many masterpieces we’d never have seen. (We artists can’t say enough about our collectors, and how much we appreciate their support!)
While women artists flocked to Paris to live more freely and study art, the world’s finest art academy, l’Ecole des Beaux Arts, didn’t accept women until 1897. Many met and studied where they were welcomed, at the Ecole Julian and in other private schools. They organized and formed the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs. Separate classes were held so women could study and paint from the nude in spite of society’s strict norms and laws that forbade it.
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.